The Wildcats have qualified for this week’s Class 3A Northeast Regional at Jacksonville State for the third time in four years, even though their record is only 9-14.
But keep in mind Saks began the season 3-10 and is starting a lineup that includes two eighth-graders, a freshman, sophomore and junior.
The Wildcats will face Holly Pond (29-3), ranked third in 3A at the end of the regular season, Thursday at 10:30 a.m.
“They’ve worked it and earned it,” Saks coach Michelle Lively said. “They’ve done an amazing job after they could have just quit and waited for next year, but they made a decision on themselves and decided they weren’t going to settle for anything less than what they deserve.”
The turnaround started in mid-January when the Wildcats shook up Class 3A, Area 10 by defeating eventual area champion White Plains on the road 42-41. It was their second straight win, which followed a seven-game losing streak.
They gained another important victory five weeks later by winning an elimination game over Piedmont in the Area 10 semifinals 47-42.
“In the first area game against Piedmont we knew right then we weren’t ready for the season to be over,” sophomore guard Daja Johnson said. “We’ve had our ups and we’ve had many downs, but at the end of the day, that’s my family. I think what scares us the most is we don’t want our season to end.”
The win sent them into the area championship game against White Plains.
Saks lost 48-46, but the season continued to the sub-regionals, where the Wildcats won at Glencoe 63-59, earning a bid to regionals.
“Honestly, when Coach (Lively) told us we were playing Glencoe, we thought it was fine because we were going to be Saks,” Johnson said. “We were going to play like we were supposed to play, do what we needed to do and come out with a win.”
That victory was Saks’ sixth in its last 10 games and gave the Wildcats their first bid to regionals since 2012, when none of the current players were on the varsity roster.
“I feel like we’re peaking at the right time. While everyone is thinking it’s another game or they’re ready for it to be over, our girls aren’t,” Lively said. “I feel like we want to talk it to the end and go to Birmingham. I’ve normally had girls on my teams that have been to the playoffs, but this is my first team that’s never been to regionals. None of these girls have experienced it so they have a taste for it right now.”
Saks’ next step isn’t an easy one -- Holly Pond. Lively said the Broncos have good shooters and are slightly taller.
She added her team needs to worry first about doing what it needs to do before worrying about the opposition.
“I feel like these girls are unstoppable when they do what they’re supposed to do and do their job,” she said. “I feel like they play well together and are comfortable doing what we do.
“Anybody can win on any given night.”
Brandon Miller covers prep sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3575 or follow him on Twitter @bmiller_star.